Broward County

Here’s how to talk to your children about the Parkland school massacre

Attendees at community prayer vigil at Parkridge Church for shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Tuesday, February 15, 2018.
Attendees at community prayer vigil at Parkridge Church for shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Tuesday, February 15, 2018. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The unthinkable happened in Parkland on Wednesday, but help is available.

Soon after a gunman shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people, Broward County Public Schools sent out a tweet: Grief counselors would be on hand for students, families and staff on Thursday and Friday to help death with the aftermath.

The locations are Pine Trails Park Recreation Center and Amphitheater, Coral Springs Gymnasium, Coral Springs Center For The Arts for students and families. For staff members, counselors are at Parkland Library. Professionals will also be there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.

To speak to someone in person, call 754-321-HELP or 754-321-4357. Crisis counselors are on hand to talk about any topic on your mind, and they can also refer you to a local specialist.

A BCPS staffer contacted on the help line said she had heard from a number of parents and students on Wednesday.

“It seemed to be that they wanted someone to connect to,” says the counselor who spoke to the Miami Herald on condition of anonymity. “I tell them to look at the situation: We don’t have any control over it. The one way we can empower ourselves is to help another person. You can’t change your world. You can only change your corner of the world.”

Another thing to note: Whatever you’re feeling about the tragedy is normal.

“It’s OK to be in pain or angry and scared,” the mental health professional added. “These are natural emotions.”

Dally Peláez, a member of the Miami-Dade Public School crisis and student services team, advises that your conversation should be carried out in an environment of support, security and love.

“Parents must control their anxiety and their reaction, because children and young people see adults as their safe place,” says Peláez. “Talk calmly. Don’t give exaggerated signs of concern. Tell them: ‘I am here with you to support you.’ 

When kids are asking for an overload of information or a ton of details about what happened, the best solution may be to just answer simply: “There is an investigation and the police are taking care of it.”

Stefania Prendes-Alvarez, a psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescents at Jackson Memorial Hospital and the University of Miami, recommends adults stick with the facts.

“You have to offer the kids answers so they don’t look for them elsewhere,” she says. “Invite them to speak as a family, to not ask their friends.”

Prendes-Alvarez adds that adolescents tend to feel a wider range of emotions — from confusion and anger to sadness.

“You have to recognize that it’s common to feel confused in a traumatic moment such as this,” she says. “They should not feel guilty if they are experiencing contradictory thoughts. Not everyone feels the same even if they have had a similar experience.”

Very important in these times: Don’t forget to monitor their social media, which can be overwhelming, not to mention filled with false information.

“The key at this moment is limitation and supervision,” says Peláez.

Adds Prendes-Alvarez: “The news should not be the last thing you hear before going to sleep.”

What happens if they don’t want to go back to school?

“We have to tell children: ‘I’m going to school with you and we’ll talk to the counselor together so you can see that everything is fine,’ ” Peláez recommends, warning that leaving them at home for long periods can cause them to be more afraid to return in the long run.

And finally, keep the routine.

“You have to focus on the fact that this was a tragedy, and that in most situations people are good and they are there to help and protect you,” affirms Prendes-Alvarez. “You have to go back to school and spend time with friends.”

Seventeen people were killed when suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Students said they heard the fire alarm go off and thought it was a drill.

Warning signs

In the days after a tragedy, young people may show unusual behavior. It’s important to heed any major changes. If you notice anything amiss, contact a mental health professional, says Peláez.

▪ They constantly talk about what happened and seem nervous and anxious.

▪ They can’t sleep or have nightmares.

▪ They feel ill, suffering from a headache or bad stomach.

▪ They isolate themselves from friends.

▪ Their grades are suffering.

Where to find help in Miami-Dade

To talk to a public school crisis counselor in Miami-Dade, call 305-995-7338. You can also call 211 on your cellphone.

Broward centers offering grief counseling

▪ Pines Trails Park Recreation Center and Amphitheater, 10555 Trails End, Parkland, 33076.

▪ Coral Springs Gymnasium, 2501 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 33065.

▪ Coral Springs Center for Performing Arts, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 33065.

▪ Westglades Middle School, 11000 Holmberg Rd., Parkland, 33076.

▪ Parkland Library, 6620 N. University Dr., Parkland, 33067.

▪ Florida Blue is offering a 24 hour hotline: 800-843-6514

By emailing wesupport@browardschools.com, those in need can find out about family counseling programs in the Parkland and Coral Springs area.

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